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The New Influencers: Employee Advocacy and The Return of Organic Reach

In 2010 I was the head of marketing at a large B2B professional services firm. We had a near perfect employee advocacy system. If I wanted to get an article trending on LinkedIn, I would have employees in Eastern Europe engage with it before 9am their time. Then people in central Europe, then western Europe, then the UK. By seeding a good piece of content this way, I could be confident that by the time LinkedIn sent out its daily Pulse emails in the morning on the US east coast, that article would be a top recommendation.

For a brief window in time—something close to a year—this was the most effective method of organic reach engineering attainable on LinkedIn. It worked like a dream. It made me appear significantly more gifted than I am, and drove the vast majority of traffic to our websites. Until of course, one day it didn’t.

These are the types of golden hacks we marketers are often in search of. A little break in the space-time continuum that gifts us an advantage over the competition. The challenge with these moments is just that; they are temporary, maybe lasting a few days to a few months. But the window eventually closes, typically because others have made the same realization as you and eventually overrun it. This forces someone to tweak an algorithm and end the opportunity.

As a marketer, you’ve surely lived through this. You likely follow the latest trends on social channel strategies. You’ve maybe become skilled at ongoing testing at a scale unthought of just a few years ago. Maybe you’ve even formalized it in new ‘growth hacking’ roles within the business. This needs to be a constant process to optimize the likelihood of tripping across such an opportunity—and to recognize when the windows of opportunity are starting to close.

Like anything when we’re focused on the short-term however, sometimes we’re so close to the frame we can’t see the big picture. And in the world of organic reach, the big picture has started to come back into focus again in unexpected ways.

That Whole Content Shock Thing

Remember the days when you could write a blog post, shout about it on social channels, and people would click on it? It actually really worked. (Click here for 11 Effective Ways to Use Social Media to Promote Your Content.) It worked so well in fact, everyone who was doing it kept increasing the volume of content they were producing. Until, well, two things happened:

Content Volumes Went Nuts

You can take Mark Schaefer’s word for it, or you can look at some indicative measures like the total number of digital news articles published in a year, as tracked by Google:

Even with the rise of fake news, it seems like there’s definitely a trend at play here.

Organic Reach Took its Ball and Went Home

And that much content, well… you know the rest.

The Rise of Paid Social

The silver lining—for the primary social channels at least—of this supply-demand conundrum? Compound quarterly paid media growth rates that look something like this:

So that, it would seem, was pretty much game over. Incorporate paid media into your content distribution strategy, or no one sees your stuff.

The Return of Organic Social Reach

For the past eight years, my agency has worked with over a hundred large enterprise organizations on global content marketing strategy development and execution.

In the early days, our clients were exclusively within the marketing department of client organizations. As content marketing has become more mainstream however, there have been numerous phases of shifts in the market. A significant one was when B2C marketers started to aggressively shift money into digital. More recently, the corporate communications function largely missed the boat during Content Marketing 1.0. But they’ve started to reclaim internal ownership of stakeholder engagement through content marketing.

Perhaps the largest development I’ve witnessed in recent years has been the application of content marketing techniques to the HR function. Firstly in isolation, and more recently, in conjunction with marketing.

At the risk of promoting and thus accelerating the end of a great hack—the results are giving dramatic new life to the organic reach of many an organization’s social feeds.

First though, let’s step back and look at what I believe has created the conditions for this very unique point in time.

Who Do You Trust?

If you ever tire of jumping on Mary Meeker’s internet stats, do yourself a favor and sit down for a few hours with Edelman’s annual report into the coming apart of the planet. The Trust Barometer covers an enormous (and sometimes chilling) range of issues relating to changing societal perceptions.

For the purposes of this article however, there is one incredibly salient finding which has been consistently important since the late 2000’s. Namely: we don’t trust official spokespeople anymore. In this age of online narcissism, we are most willing to trust people just like ourselves.

Edelman Trust Barometer, 2017

Source: Edelman

Deep down, we know this to be true. Just think about the last time you booked a hotel. You’d trust the review of someone you don’t know and will never meet over what the hotel tells you about themselves.

This trend occurring at the same time as organic reach drops has, unsurprisingly, fueled the creation of another industry, as marketers seek out the next free competitive edge…

Search Trends: “Influencer Marketing”

Source: Google Trends

That’s right, we trust people like us. Well maybe they’re not exactly like us. But we agree with what they say, and they communicate with the appearance of authenticity. Which is why influencer marketing is so powerful. (Learn how to create an Influencer Marketing Program for Content Promotion.) In the image below is the same post, same influencer. But one is posted from the influencer’s own account; the other from her client’s. Lumee Case (a phone case with LED lighting that makes you look on fleek for selfies) posts, and gets 1,700+ likes. Kim posts, and gets 800,000+ likes.

As the influencer space has evolved and matured, we’ve moved through various phases. Perhaps the most interesting recent evolution is the rise of the ‘micro influencer.’ If you’re an early adopter and influential amongst your social connections in fashion or music, you’re in luck. Many major brands are looking to place two hundred $1,000 bets with a large number of people with street cred, rather than $200,000 with a single ‘Kardashian’ level influencer. As my 14 year-old son can attest.

Even in the relatively new world of influencer marketing then, we’re seeing an accelerating move away from big names towards ‘a person like yourself.’

Employee Advocacy = The New Influencers

We’ve worked with more and more enterprise HR departments on building out their employer brand and bringing it to life through social. And we have seen two additional changes start to happen.

Firstly, marketing is actually keen to be in the room with HR. Not so long ago, the concept of ‘employer branding’ was a tug-of-war disaster zone within many organizations. Marketing felt ownership of anything with ‘brand’ in the name. HR typically didn’t have the budget or relative organizational authority to make an impact. In the past two years, there has been a major shift on both sides. Now many marketing leaders are actively supporting and often driving employer branding efforts.

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of bringing an employer brand to life is the identification and use of internal spokespeople to carry that message to the outside world. That’s right, employee advocacy. People considering working with a company have a very active authenticity radar, and want to hear from people who are—surprise—like them.

When an organization’s objectives and the employee’s aspirations are aligned, the results can be nothing short of outstanding.

For example, notice the image below from a recent LinkedIn post. In it we see PwC achieving extraordinary organic reach through what appears to be a spontaneous employee post. It is in fact the end result of an intentional strategic approach to topic selection, content co-creation, and advocacy platform.

PwC employee advocacy on LinkedIn

More unexpectedly, in the past few months we’re seeing something more significant starting to happen.

Sure, we’re getting more and more clients where both marketing and HR are in the room together, taking a common approach to content marketing.

What I think’s most interesting though, is that increasingly our marketing clients are coming to believe that perhaps the best way to market to all audiences is through employee advocacy. And not just when you’re trying to convince people to come work for you.

Back to the Future

Now companies have the same teams looking across a broader set of audience needs. And more and more are discovering that employee advocacy is the most ‘authentic’ way to reach those audiences. For awareness, perception, lead-gen, nurturing, conversion objectives—all of it.

At one-level it’s back-to-the-future. Employee advocacy tools had a first burst of relevance around five years ago—but it’s much more than that. Progressive companies are trying to leverage internal employees as their marketing channel right through to the core business strategy. They’re asking: what do we want to achieve, with whom—and which of our internal team members will drive it?

All that stuff about trusting people just like ourselves really is playing out in the marketplace.

Want to dive into the details of how companies are rediscovering employee advocacy to drive external marketing results through organic reach? Please join me for Curata’s Expert Series Webinar on Employee Advocacy and The Return of Organic Reach, Tuesday May 9 at 3pm EDT.

Todd Wheatland

Todd Wheatland is a recognized authority on content marketing and social media. He is head of strategy at two-time global content marketing agency of the year, King Content, and is the immediate past VP of thought leadership and marketing at Fortune 500® workforce solutions company Kelly Services. He is author of The Marketer’s Guide series, co-author of upcoming The Cult of Work, and was named a Top 25 social media expert by LinkedIn.

Check out Todd’s podcast, The Pivot: Marketing Backstories, on iTunes, Stitcher, or the CMI Website:

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